Well, the hot-stove league started a little earlier this year than we would have liked and there has actually been some news out of Astros camp. The team announced that payroll for next season was not going to increase and would stay around the $65 million level. In that regard, the Astros declined to exercise options for Shane Reynolds ($8 million) and Brad Ausmus ($7 million), although the two could be back next season. The Astros also told Craig Biggio’s agent that resigning Biggio was not a priority and the team would address any contract extension (if at all) at the end of next season. Nelson Cruz announced that he wanted a trade, stating that he can’t play for Jimy Williams. Richard Hidalgo told the Houston Chronicle that he also wants a trade, but his agent retracted the statement a the day later. And that’s not the only news, of course. Darryl Hamilton reported that Jeff Kent would like to play third-base for the Astros next season. And the Sporting News says that the Astros are thinking about signing Marquiss Grissom to play centerfield. And finally, the Seattle Times reports that the Red Sox, who are looking to dump salary for next season, are considering trading Nomar Garciappara, who is disgruntled. The Astros, of course, haven’t said anything about Nomar (they couldn’t even if they wanted to because of tampering rules) but that hasn’t stopped people (mostly myself) from speculating whether the Astros could pull together a deal to bring Nomar to Houston without causing Drayton McLane’s wallet to explode. Let’s discuss.
First, I’m glad to see the Astros take this surprising stand with Biggio. And I call it suprising because it conflicts with what Gerry Hunsicker previously said in an interview to a Colorado newspaper after Biggio publicly stated that he wanted to play for two additional seasons after his current contract expires. Let’s face it, Biggio is going to be 38 when the 2004 season starts (a ridiculous age for a starting infielder) and his career is seriously on the decline. His OBP this past season was .330, 47 points lower than his career average. (To put this in perspective, Morgan Ensberg got on base for the Astros on a more frequent basis this past season than Biggio.) I would rather spend my money elsewhere, even if it means pushing youngsters like Chris Burke to the majors earlier than expected. Biggio should not be the Astros’ Cal Ripken, preventing the team from developing. If Biggio gets a contract extension after the 2003 season, let it be for a good reason – because he earned that contract on the field – not because of some misplaced feeling of loyalty. I believe that the Astros announced this position publicly to prepare the City of Houston for the fact that Biggio is going to play elsewhere in 2004. So far, there hasn’t been much fan outcry. Not surprising. A lot of Houston sports fans have a bad taste in their mouth from the way that Hakeem Olajuwon tried holding up the Rockets before he left for Toronto. Let’s see what happens in 2003.
I think that we will likely see both Shane Reynolds and Brad Ausmus back with the Astros next season. Ausmus holds an option to resign for $5.5 million. Frankly, I don’t think that he is going to get a better deal elsewhere and he would be stupid not to exercise the option (and we all know that Brad isn’t stupid – he did go to Dartmouth). And if Ausmus does manage to get a multi-year offer from another team, I would not be surprised to see the Astros offer him a one-year extension to play through the 2004 season. Ausmus has been nearly magical with the young pitchers and his defensive play is stellar. Ausmus even met offensive production expectations this season, hitting .257 with 6 home runs and 50 RBIs. To put these numbers in perspective, in 2000 (his last season with Detroit) Ausmus hit .266 with 7 home runs and 51 RBIs. If you thought you were going to get more from Ausmus, what games were you watching? John Buck isn’t ready for the majors and outside of Ivan Rodriguez (who the Astros aren’t signing any time soon), there aren’t any good free agent catchers available. Welcome back Bradley.
While Gerry Hunsicker has expressed his desire to work out a new deal with Reynolds, there are a lot of questions. Can Reynolds pitch? When will he be able to pitch? How effective will he be? Reynolds isn’t even slated to begin throwing until November and Gerry says “[y]ou're looking at a situation where until you get to Spring Training and really see him compete and how his body reacts to the rigors of pitching, you're really not going to have a good handle on where you are.” I look at Shane Reynolds and see another Doug Brocail situation. But the Astros need another starting pitcher, particularly with Carlos Hernandez’s situation up in the air. Would I like to see Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux in Houston? Yes, but I don’t think that the budget is large enough. Shane wants to pitch in Houston, and I look for the Astros to give him a new contract at $3 million or below for 2003 with built-in incentives and an option for 2004 that kicks in based on innings pitched. If Shane can pitch, he’s a good third or fourth starter. And if he can’t pitch, well . . . at least he’s not going to cost a lot.
A few words about Marquiss Grissom – please don’t. Grissom isn’t a lead-off hitter anymore. His OBP this past season was .321. To put that number in perspective, Brian Hunter’s OBP was .329 and Julio Lugo’s OBP was .322. The only thing impressive about Grissom this past season was his 17 home runs in only 343 at bats. And he did this playing in a severe pitcher's park. It is certainly possible that Grissom might hit 20 HRs playing full-time in Enron Field. But the Astros aren’t signing Grissom because he can hit home runs. They want him to play centerfield and lead off the game. I would suggest that Brian Hunter can fit that role as easily as Grissom and Hunter is already under contract for next season. You don’t want Brian Hunter starting? Me neither. Which is why I say the Astros shouldn’t sign Grissom to a free-agent contract.
I have previously stated in this column that more than a lead-off hitter and centerfielder, and even more than a starting pitcher, the Astros need another big stick in the lineup. Either Jeff Kent or Nomar Garciappara would be fine with me. The problem, of course, is that the Astros are an unlikely candidate to get either, given the salary constraints imposed by Drayton McLane. And let me rant a little here. Frankly, I don’t see how the Astros are going to compete with the Cardinals in 2003 if they don’t get off this self-imposed salary cap. And I hear the Astros talk about their losses and the bad economy, yet the Cardinals have not problem spending $30 million more on payroll than the Astros. If you look at the financial disclosures made by the two teams for the 2001 season, the net revenues for both teams essentially were equal ($132 million for the Cardinals, $124 million for the Astros), the biggest difference being gate receipts ($67 million for the Cardinals, $49 million for the Astros). How is it possible, then, that the Cardinals can spend $30 million more than the Astros? Maybe the Cardinals realize that you need to spend money to get fans to show up – to bring in the gate receipts. And this is even more true in Houston, a city that does not have the great baseball tradition of St. Louis and where the fans are fickle. Drayton McLane is a marketing genius to the tune of a $1.1 billion fortune. How has he failed to recognize the need to raise payroll. And if Drayton has decided that he cannot make a profit from the team if he spends more money on payroll, then maybe he should sell the team to someone who believes he can make money with an increased payroll.
The hot stove season is a marathon not a sprint. I don’t want to get too hot and bothered here in October. But the Astros need more than a tweak. They need a position player or two, a starting pitcher, and a reliever. Oh well. For now, I’m going to enjoy watching the rest of the playoffs and the World Series. I like watching the games. But I can’t stand watching the celebrations. It’s time for the Astros to celebrate something.
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